How to Buy a Home Theater System
Movies can provide an immersive experience, as sight and sound blend together to take you to a place far, far away. For years you could get that complete escape only in a cinema, with its huge screen and monstrous speakers. Now, with a home theater, you can enjoy a full-fledged cinematic experience in your living room. This guide looks at three key components of a home theater system: the display, the DVD player, and the speakers.
The Big Picture A wide-screen TV, a DVD player, and surround-sound speakers can turn your living room into a film-watching haven. more
The Specs Explained You can choose from a wide variety of components to create a home theater. Bigger is not always better, however; find out how to evaluate the specs here. more
Home Theater Shopping Tips Now that you know which components and specifications are available, you can sort through the options to set up your own customized home theater. more
The Big Picture
A home theater can do a remarkable job of mimicking the multiplex experience. DVD players and newer televisions can produce detailed high-resolution pictures, offering realistic portrayals of everything from the largest explosion to the smallest teardrop. And thanks to a high-quality surround-sound speaker system, you'll almost feel the rotor blades whirring by as you watch a helicopter pass overhead. With the right setup, your living room will become a movie-watching cocoon.
To get the crisp picture, you'll need a DVD player or one of the new high-definition HD DVD or Blu-ray Disc players. DVD video outputs up to 540 horizontal lines of resolution, compared with about 200 lines on the VHS tapes your VCR plays. And you can see the difference, as the higher resolution produces a noticeably smoother and clearer picture. Most major consumer electronics companies, including Panasonic, Pioneer, Sony, and Toshiba, make DVD players. These same companies also make the newer high-definition players that are capable of more than four times the resolution of standard DVD models when playing high-definition discs.
Prices for basic players range from $50 to $150, but you can pay a lot more for DVD players with lots of features. The overall picture quality, however, will usually be just as good on a current low-cost model as on an ultra-deluxe one. All DVD players can read music CDs; most can play MP3 music on recordable CDs, and video on one or more of the various recordable DVD formats (such as DVD-R and DVD+R). Some high-end models can also play one or both of the high-resolution, multichannel audio formats, DVD-Audio (DVD-A) and Super Audio CD (SACD). At the top of the heap are players for the new high-definition videodisc formats, Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD, which currently sell for $300 or more; you'll need a high-definition television to take full advantage of them, though.
Picking the Right TV
While you can watch DVD movies on any television, wide-screen TVs work especially well because most DVD movies use the wide-screen format. Wide-screen televisions have a 16:9 (width:height) aspect ratio, which is closer to the shape of theater screens than the 4:3 aspect ratio of normal TVs is. In addition, the 16:9 aspect ratio is standard for high-definition television, which produces much sharper and clearer pictures than does conventional (NTSC) television. As a result, almost all TVs available today with a diagonal screen measurement greater than 27 inches are wide-screen models, and most (though not all) of them are capable of displaying high-definition images. For your home theater, you probably don't want to consider anything other than a wide-screen TV.
For the first 50 years of television's history, essentially all sets used cathode-ray tubes to display the picture. Today, other display technologies dominate at screen sizes larger than 26 inches, and CRT-based TVs will likely disappear from the market within the next decade. TVs appropriate for home theaters now divide into roughly three categories: flat-panel TVs, rear-projection TVs, and front projectors.
Flat-panel TVs are just a few inches thick and can be either wall- or stand-mounted. LCD (liquid crystal display) panels are available in sizes ranging from portable units of a few inches diagonal to wide-screen models measuring as large as 65 inches diagonal. Plasma panels start at about 42 inches, and models measuring more than 100 inches diagonal are available. Except for small LCD TVs (usually 20 inches or less), almost all flat-panel TVs are wide-screen models, and most have HDTV inputs and resolutions. Where plasma and LCD screen sizes overlap, the LCDs tend to be more expensive. Generally speaking, LCDs are more suitable than plasmas for brightly lit rooms, but plasmas typically can produce deeper blacks and truer colors and thus a more pleasing overall picture. (Both technologies are evolving rapidly, however.) Most flat-panel TVs suitable for home theater use sell for between $700 and $10,000.
Rear-projection TVs cast a video image onto the inside of a translucent screen by means of internal mirrors and lenses. All rear-projection TVs (or RPTVs) available today are wide-screen HDTV designs. Some budget models still use CRTs to create the projected images, but most now rely on more compact DLP (Digital Light Projection), LCoS (liquid crystal on silicon), or LCD light engines in which a high-intensity lamp shines on or through one or more display chips or panels. Although bulkier than flat-panel TVs, rear-projection sets using these new technologies are usually no more than 16 to 18 inches deep and weigh only about 100 pounds; most are designed to be placed on a shelf or stand, something hard to achieve with traditional CRT designs. Screen sizes for rear-projection TVs range from about 42 inches to more than 70 inches diagonal, with prices typically between $1000 and $5000.
Originally developed primarily for business presentations on computers, compact front projectors (most using DLP or LCD technology) have become increasingly popular for home theater. Low-noise, high-definition models start at about $1000, and can produce extremely large, clear pictures. You will need a good-quality reflective cinema screen to project onto, however, and you will need to darken the room to get decent picture quality.
The Sound of Movies
While the visual element is at the forefront of a movie's appeal, sound is what really immerses you in the experience. To achieve theater-quality audio, you'll need more than the speakers built into your TV or the two bookshelf speakers that came with your mini stereo system. A complete surround-sound system from a company such as Bose, JBL, or Paradigm includes center, left, and right speakers, as well as two satellite speakers (intended for placement at the sides or somewhat behind the seating area) and a subwoofer for rumbling bass.
These six speakers work together with audio formats such as Dolby Digital and DTS to create the sensation of bullets whizzing by your head and thunderstorms rolling through your house and rattling your teeth. You don't need all the elements to enjoy a good listening experience, but at a minimum you should have center, left, and right speakers.
Most home theater systems also include an A/V receiver--a box that acts as the hub for all audio input from the various components of the system, decodes surround-sound signals, and amplifies and balances sound before sending it to the speakers.
As more people decide to set up a home theater, vendors are making the task easier. Many companies now offer "home theater in a box" setups that include a DVD player integrated with a receiver, plus a full set of six speakers.
The Specs Explained
You'll find a plethora of displays, DVD players, and speakers at any home electronics store. Distinguishing one from another can be difficult, but the specs can help if you understand them. With that in mind, we've grouped the specifications for these products into three categories: important, somewhat important, and minor.
Important: Display Type
This is the physical mechanism that the TV uses to display the image. Flat panels (both LCD and plasma displays) and rear-projection TVs are capable of producing large, wide-screen, high-definition pictures. Front projectors can create sharp images in still larger screen sizes (up to 10 feet or so). Make your decision based on your budget, on the image size you desire, on where the screen will be located in the room, and on the lighting conditions. LCD panels, for example, can work well even in rooms bathed in bright sunlight, whereas front projectors virtually require that the room be darkened or dimly lit.
Important: Video Inputs and Outputs
These determine how a TV receives signals from a DVD player (or from another external device, such as a cable box or a satellite receiver). S-Video inputs provide a cleaner, slightly higher-resolution picture than standard composite inputs do, while still using a single wire. Component inputs deliver the luminance and color components of a video signal on three separate wires and allow connection of progressive-scan and high-definition sources. HDMI carries digital video signals, primarily from high-definition video sources but also from upconverting DVD players. For best picture quality, use an HDMI or component connection whenever possible.
Important: DVD Player Output Resolution
Conventional DVD players deliver what is known as 480i output, which means 480 video scan lines in interlaced format--the same type of signal that regular TV broadcasts use. Most current players can also provide 480p, or progressive-scan, output, which typically looks better on HDTVs and other sets capable of progressive-scan display (this includes all models except CRT-based sets). Upconversion by DVD players produces HD-resolution (720p, 1080i, and sometimes 1080p) output from a regular DVD. The higher resolutions are produced by interpolation, however, so the picture doesn't look as good as an image from a true high-definition source, plus, almost all current HDTVs perform such upconversion internally anyway. The best pictures are produced by new models that can play true high-definition HD DVD or Blu-ray Discs in addition to standard DVDs.
Important: Number of Speakers
How many speakers do you want? For a complete surround-sound experience from DVDs and from HDTV broadcasts, you'll need five to seven speakers, and for best performance you'll probably want a subwoofer as well (to produce strong, deep bass). In low-end systems or in a cramped area, you may prefer to buy a smaller number of higher-quality speakers; you can always add more later, including a subwoofer. Even if you start out with just a pair of stereo speakers, you'll enjoy significantly better sound than the speakers built into a TV would provide.
Somewhat Important: TV Display Resolution
For 30-inch or larger screens, you'll get better picture quality from high-definition broadcasts and DVDs if you buy an HDTV model. The display resolutions of HDTV sets vary; typical examples include 720p (1280 by 720 pixels), 1080i or 1080p (1920 by 1080), 1366 by 768, and 1024 by 768. The exact display resolution of the set you buy may not matter much unless its screen is relatively large and you sit unusually close to it. The difference between 720p and 1080p resolution, for example, isn't visible on a 50-inch screen until you get within about 10 feet of it.
Somewhat Important: Disc Formats Supported
DVD players can do more than handle DVDs. In addition to running DVD movies, bargain players will play music CDs as well as CD-Rs and CD-RWs with music recorded on them. They will usually play MP3-encoded music on CD-R and CD-RW discs, and video recorded on at least one of the available recordable DVD formats (DVD-R/RW, DVD+R/RW, DVD-RAM). Some higher-end players will also play high-resolution DVD-Audio or SACD music discs. Today's best players support one or both of the new high-definition videodisc formats, Blu-ray and HD DVD.
Minor: Disc Capacity
This is simply the number of discs the DVD player can hold at once. A multidisc changer can be convenient, especially for playing CDs, but it will not affect the setup's picture or sound quality.
Home Theater Shopping Tips
Ready to put together a home theater of your own? Here are PC World's recommendations for displays, DVD players, and speakers.
Go with HD: Choose a wide-screen high-definition TV in the size most appropriate for your room. Only if you're on a very tight budget or have a very small room should you consider anything else.
Choose an appropriate screen size: Bigger is usually better, up to a point. Your own eyes are your best guide on this, but a good (though rough) rule of thumb is that the diagonal screen size should not be larger than about half your seating distance. With a 42-inch TV, for example, you probably should not watch from closer than about 7 feet.
Look for HDMI or component-video inputs on the TV: These inputs will allow you to connect high-definition and progressive-scan sources and will produce the best possible picture quality. The set should also have composite-video and S-Video inputs for sources such as VCRs. And a set of A/V inputs on the set's front or side will make it easier to hook up a camcorder for viewing home videos.
Opt for progressive scan: It's hard to find a current DVD player that doesn't include progressive scan, which produces a sharper, flicker-free picture. However, the TV you use will need to have component inputs that support the progressive-scan signal as well. A high-definition Blu-ray Disc or HD DVD player will provide an even better picture; it also will require a component input--or, better, an HDMI input. Some regular DVD players will upconvert their outputs to pseudo-high-definition resolution, but since this does not actually increase the amount of detail in the picture and duplicates a function built into most TVs that can accept a high-definition input, it is seldom a genuinely useful feature.
Consider a multiple-disc setup: A five-disc carousel DVD player allows you keep a movie or two and several CDs in the player at once, so you don't have to get up to change discs.
Start with three speakers: If you can't afford the full surround-sound setup, start with the center, left, and right speakers. You can always add the subwoofer later if you miss the extra bass, and you can buy the satellite surround speakers if you want a full surround-sound effect.
Use 100 watts as a guideline: A receiver than can produce 100 watts per channel will be more than adequate for most home theater systems.
Look for Dolby Digital support: Make sure the receiver you buy includes Dolby Digital decoding. Dolby Pro Logic II is highly desirable as well, to provide surround sound from videotapes and from ordinary stereo music sources such as CDs.
Look for a good return policy: Some speakers may sound great in the store but not in your living room. Make sure that you can return them if the way they sound in your home disappoints you.